‘Us’ vs ‘them’, this time in Shillong

Shillong: A damaged UTI bus lies on a roadside after clashes between the residents of the city's Punjabi Line area and Khasi drivers of state-run buses, in Shillong on Monday, June 04, 2018. About 1,000 central paramilitary personnel have been sent to Meg

Violence returned to Meghalaya’s capital Shillong last week after many years of peace and quiet. Shillong has not seen persistent and continuous strife like some other hotspots in the North-East, but there has been recurrent strife over some issues, particularly the presence of outsiders. The latest trouble was also over the issue of outsiders, with the local Khasis coming into conflict with the Mazhabi Sikh settlers in the city. Bengalis had come under attack in 1979 and Nepalis and Biharis had become targets in 1987. The reason for the present trouble is not very clear. It is said to be an unpleasant exchange of words between a local bus driver and a Sikh woman inside the bus or an altercation between a local person and some Sikhs over parking in an area where the Sikhs have traditionally lived. In either case, the reason is trivial and it could only have been the immediate trigger for the release of pent-up animosities.  

The Sikhs are, in fact, not outsiders in Shillong because they have lived there for over 150 years in an area earmarked as Punjabi Lane. The distinction between an insider and an outsider is difficult to establish in many situations. How could the Sikh settlers be considered outsiders when they had no links with Punjab for generations and have for long been part of the social and economic life of Shillong? There was a move to evict them from the area where they lived and to settle them outside the city. The Sikhs had resisted this. This could also have been a reason for the violence. Fortunately, no lives have been lost but there was arson, stone-pelting and physical violence for three days. Curfew has been clamped and the army has staged flag marches. There is still tension in some parts of the city.

The police reacted late to the initial flare-up. As in many other situations, the social media fanned the flames by spreading rumours, wrong allegations and provocative news like the killing of two Khasi youths by the Punjabis. The official machinery and the civil society failed to counter this. Mischievous propaganda and campaigns should be exposed and nipped in the bud in such situations. No Indian working or living in any part of the country should be considered an outsider there. But such fault lines are deepening because of divisive campaigns by those with vested interests and the lack of socio-economic development. Such troubles and eruptions will only hurt the cities or states where they happen. Tourism, which makes a major contribution to the state’s economy, has been badly hit and it will take a long time to recover.

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‘Us’ vs ‘them’, this time in Shillong

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